By Will Vandervort / Photos courtesy Clemson University.
I read a column in an Oklahoma newspaper the other day that gave a primer for Sooners’ fans on Clemson’s football history. Of course this was prior to Clemson’s 40-6 victory in the Russell Athletic Bowl. It was a nice idea and maybe I will borrow the concept when I preview Clemson’s opponents next season.
And though it was nice to see the writer take the time to share some of Clemson’s great traditions and history, I discovered he had a few inaccuracies in his story. That of course got me to thinking that maybe I should enlighten some of you guys on Clemson’s rich football history. You know, just a Cliffs Note version so you guys are update.
First off, let’s clear the air right here. Clemson Memorial Stadium did not get its nickname “Death Valley” because of the cemetery that sits behind the south stands. The nickname was derived from longtime Presbyterian College head coach Lonnie McMillian in 1946 when he told his players and the press that the Blue Hose had to go to “Death Valley” and play the Tigers, again.
For years (from 1930-’57) Clemson and PC opened the season together and in most years the Tigers always beat the Blue Hose pretty handedly. In the 1945 game, Clemson won 76-0, which prompted McMillian to call Memorial Stadium “Death Valley.” A few years later in the late 1940s or early ‘50s, legendary head coach Frank Howard started calling it Death Valley to the local media and the nickname caught on even more.
“After we were beaten so badly in 1945, Coach McMillian and us players referred to the Clemson trip as going ‘to Death Valley,’” said Cally Gault, now 85 years old and residing in Clinton, S.C. “I’m not sure when the press picked up on it, but I’m sure it was real soon.”
By the way LSU fans your school didn’t start calling Tiger Field “Death Valley” until after Billy Cannon’s famous punt return to beat Ole Miss in the 1958 game, which won him the Heisman Trophy. There is literature to document this fact. In Marty Mule’s 1993 book called the Eye of the Tiger, One Hundred Years of LSU Football he describes that night and at the same time speaks to the origin of how Tiger Stadium became known as “Death Valley.”
In the Chapter called “Death Valley USA” and on page 123, Mule’ writes about the reaction from Cannon’s 89-yard punt return to beat Ole Miss. Go look it up.
Clemson started running down the Hill from the very beginning at Memorial Stadium. But it was initially done out of convenience and there was little fanfare for it. After building the stadium in 1942, Howard and his players would dress in Fike Fieldhouse and would walk down Williamson Road. The story goes that Howard told his players, instead of walking around the stadium and coming in the west side, to cut through the fence on the east side and go down the hill.
At the time only a large scoreboard with a clock was located above the Hill so the players entered at the gate under the scoreboard and would walk down the Hill and begin their warm up exercises. Eventually some fans caught on to what was going on and they would line up and greet the Tigers as they jogged down the Hill. At first it was just a few people, then it grew to a couple of 100 and it continued to get bigger and bigger.
The current way the Tigers run down the Hill started in 1973 in Red Parker’s second game as head coach. Clemson built a brand new locker room under the West End Zone stands after Howard retired in 1969. So they no longer walked down Williamson Road from Fike. From 1970-’72, Clemson did not run down the Hill, but when he took over in 1973, Parker could see there was no energy in the stadium so he came up with the idea and concept Clemson uses to this day in what is called the “Most Exciting 25 Seconds in College Football.”
People mess this story up the most. The first time the Rock was placed on top of the Hill was in the 1966 season opener against Virginia. The spring prior to that, Howard was cleaning out his offices at Fike when he came across two rocks which Clemson alum Sam Jones had given him somewhere around 1964 or’65. No one is sure of when the rocks were given to Howard. Jones had retrieved the rocks from Death Valley, Calif., on a trip he had taken there.
Howard used the rocks as a doorstop so as the story goes he asked Gene Willimon, who was the executive secretary of IPTAY at the time, to take the rocks and throw them over the fence and into Death Valley with the rest of the rocks. Willimon did not think that was a great way to treat Jones’ gift so he took one of the rocks—no one is sure where the second one is—and he put it on a pedestal and placed it at the top of the Hill.
Howard was not a big fan of it at first, but he let it stay. In the first game, with the rock at the top of the Hill, Clemson players did not rub the rock or anything like that. But in that game against Virginia, the Tigers trailed the Cavaliers by 18 points late in the third quarter and then scored 23 unanswered points to beat them, 40-35. It is still the largest come-from-behind win by a Clemson team in Death Valley history.
Clemson did not lose a home game that season as it followed with wins over Duke (9-6), North Carolina (27-3) and then South Carolina (35-10) on its way to an ACC Championship. Howard felt it was no coincidence the Tigers had so much success and were undefeated at home after his rock made its debut on top of the Hill so he decided he would have a little fun with it.
That next year, Howard told his players his rock had mystical powers and if they were willing to give everything they had then they could touch his rock and it would give them good luck. But, he said if they are not willing to give 110 percent every time they ran down that hill and into Death Valley then he wanted them to “keep their filthy hands” off his rock.
The Tigers first rubbed Howard’s Rock on September 23, 1967 prior to a 23-6 victory over Wake Forest. Other than the three years in which Hootie Ingram did not allow his teams to go down the Hill (1970-’72), Clemson players have rubbed Howard’s Rock prior to every home game.
The Tiger Paw
Arguably the Tiger Paw logo is one of the most recognizable symbols in collegiate athletics.
The Clemson Tiger Paw was introduced to Clemson people in July of 1970. Over the past four decades, the Paw has become woven into the fabric of Clemson culture and is arguably the most direct link between the university and the outside world.
The Paw began as an idea to set Clemson athletics apart from other schools that use the nickname “Tigers.”
In 1969, Clemson started to discuss changing the logo from the traditional tiger to something more original. A committee was formed to investigate and to direct the development of such a change. Members included Howard—the athletic director at the time, Assistant Athletic Director Bill McLellan, and Ingram, who some suggest was the driving force behind the shift to the Paw.
The committee enlisted the services of the Henderson Advertising Agency in Greenville, S.C., to come up with the design and complete the transition to a new logo. After discussing several options, it was decided that the Tiger Paw would be considered for the new logo. The agency turned the project over to creative designer and artist John Antonio in June of 1970 to begin the drafting process, which took several days.
Antonio contacted the Smithsonian Institute for a photo of a tiger’s paw and the National History Museum in Chicago, IL for a cast of a tiger paw. He used both items in forming his final version of the Clemson Tiger Paw.
When he was finished, Antonio presented the completed project to a group of athletic department personnel, who were largely receptive to the Tiger Paw design. Apparently, the key to the presentation of the project was Antonio showing the Tiger Paw on a football helmet. Howard thought it looked sharp and he was on board with the overall idea. Then the Paw was successfully pitched to Dr. R.C. Edwards, who was president of Clemson at the time, and it was also presented to the Board of Trustees.
Some of the intricacies of the Paw that contribute to its aura were implemented by design at the behest of Antonio. The 30-degree angle at which the official Paw sits is there to designate a 1:00 kickoff time for football games, which was a normal occurrence in those days. The indention at the bottom is due to a scar that the tiger who had been chosen as the subject for the logo had received before the cast was made.
The Orange Pants
Clemson first wore orange pants in the 1980 game against South Carolina when then head coach Danny Ford used them as motivation to beat No. 14 South Carolina.
It also caught the fans by surprise because Ford had his players come out of the locker room wearing the traditional orange jersey and white pants during warm up exercises. But, when the team went back to the locker room prior to getting on the buses and traveling around the stadium to run down the Hill, they changed into their orange pants. When they got to the top of the Hill and the fans saw them wearing all-orange for the first time, Death Valley erupted and the Gamecocks never had a chance.
Willie Underwood returned one interception for a score and used another to setup a second touchdown as the underdog Tigers rolled to a 27-6 victory. It catapulted the 1981 team’s undefeated season and run to the national championship.
Ford’s teams were 12-2 in the all-orange. He used the orange pants as motivation. At first, they were only to be worn against South Carolina if they earned the right to wear them based on how they did in practice leading up to the game, but the seniors on the 1981 team talked Ford into letting them wear the all-orange uniforms against Georgia that year if they earned that right in practice, incidentally a tradition was born and recently Dabo Swinney has brought it back.
A championship tradition
Clemson has won 14 ACC Championships over the years and 21 conference championships overall. The Tigers won five in the SIAA and two in the Southern Conference as well prior to joining the ACC in 1953 as a Charter Member.
Clemson won its only national championship in 1981 as it capped a perfect 12-0 season with a win over Nebraska in the 1982 Orange Bowl.
Clemson has been to 37 bowl games which ranks 17th all-time and has won 19 of them, which ranks also ranks 17th all-time. The Tigers’ 10 consecutive bowl appearances ranks 10th nationally and has been bowl eligible for 15 consecutive years.
Since 1977, the Tigers have played in a postseason bowl game 30 times. In the last 30 years, Clemson has played in a bowl game 26 times – one of the top 10 figures in all of college football.
The NCAA allowed teams to start playing 11 games a year in 1970 so to reach the 10-win plateau a school had to win all 10 games, and prior to 1948 Clemson mostly played nine-game schedules.
Overall, Clemson has recorded 11 ten-win seasons, including an 11-0 record in 1948 and a 12-0 record in 1981. The 1978 team, led by ACC Player of the Year Steve Fuller, went 11-1. From 1987-’90, Clemson teams won 10 games every year and the program recently matched that feat by recording four straight 10-win seasons dating back to the 2011 campaign. The Tigers won 10 games in 2011, 11 in 2012 and ’13 and then 10 this past season.
Top 10 seasons
The Tigers have finished a season ranked 27 times—this year will make 28—and in 11 of those occasions they have been ranked in the top 10 in either or all the Associated Press, USA Today or Coaches Polls. Keep in mind from 1960-’69 polls only ranked the top 10 teams.
Rankings did not officially begin until the Associate Press Poll debuted in 1936.
Of course Clemson’s highest finish was No. 1 by the 1981 team. The other top 10 teams were the 1950, 1978, 1982, 1983, 1987, 1988, 1990, 2012, 2013 teams.